Younger Americans Believe That They're All Above Average

For the past several decades, we as a society have focused on raising people’s self-esteem more than on working hard or setting goals or achieving things or being honest or trustworthy. According to a new survey of college freshmen, we as a society have succeeded. Hooray for us! Aren’t we awesome!


About nine million young people have filled out the American Freshman Survey, since it began in 1966.

It asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas – and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being “above average” for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.

Twenge adds that while the Freshman Survey shows that students are increasingly likely to label themselves as gifted in writing ability, objective test scores indicate that actual writing ability has gone down since the 1960s.

But isn’t high self-esteem good? Doesn’t it lead to success in life?

“If there is any effect at all, it is quite small,” says Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. He was the lead author of a 2003 paper that scrutinised dozens of self-esteem studies.

He found that although high self-esteem frequently had a positive correlation with success, the direction of causation was often unclear. For example, are high marks awarded to people with high self-esteem or does getting high marks engender high self-esteem?

And a third variable can influence both self-esteem and the positive outcome.

“Coming from a good family might lead to both high self-esteem and personal success,” says Baumeister.

“Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success. Despite my years invested in research on self-esteem, I reluctantly advise people to forget about it.”


Self-control. I remember reading about that in a list, along with other antiquated notions like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness. But those values don’t lead to high self-esteem, so feel free to ignore them.

Forsyth and Kerr studied the effect of positive feedback on university students who had received low grades (C, D, E and F). They found that the weaker students actually performed worse if they received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-worth.

“An intervention that encourages [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of work, may remove the reason to work hard,” writes Baumeister.

If you’re a good person, people like you and you’re well above average just like everybody else, you’ll read the whole fascinating thing.

I wonder, where does all the self-love go when one’s unrealistic expectations are not met? What does it turn into?


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